Salar de Uyuni – Bolivian Salt Flats (Bolivia)

Uyuni is a nondescript dusty town, which probably only still exists due to its close proximity to the salt flats. The salt flats are the remains of a large inland, high altitude lake which has long since dried up.
We booked a 3 day/2 night excursion in the main tourist drag street, with Blue Line tours, as they had been highly recommended by people we had met on a previous hike. The cost was only 700 bolivianos (approx. Aus$140) per person with the Spanish speaking guide option.

Day 1

We set off at 10.30am in the Toyota Landcruiser (4wd vehicle of choice for approximately 75% of these tours). This trip could not be completed in a standard vehicle. There were 6 of us (a British couple, a young German girl, a French girl and the 2 of us) plus our driver/guide). First stop was less than 2km out of town at the ‘Train Cemetery’. In reality its a dumping ground for disused locomotives but it made for a good photo opportunity and some climbing practice.

A short drive onwards, we stopped off at small village for a quick lunch and to view an array of hand woven llama wool clothing and associated garments.

From there we headed West and almost immediately into the salt flats, where the scenery changed from dust to pure white against the sky blue background in all directions.

After a short while we stopped off at some small mounds of salt which had been dug up and left to dry. These made for some more climbing practice and a chance to demonstrate our gymnastic skills…it also meant that our trousers and shoes would be covered in sand for 3 days!

Next we drove on a short while and stopped at some small but interesting thermal pools in the salt flats. We were clearly instructed by our guide to ‘cuidado’ (take care) and that the water was ‘muy caliente’ but this didn’t stop Jon sticking his finger in to prove the temperature was near to boiling…ouch!

Off again, we drove to a clear area, where we got the opportunity to try our hand and use our imagination at salt flat optical illusion photos, using some props such as the obligatory Pringles packet, lego man, toy dinosaurs, banana etc. etc. We had so many ideas that we quickly ran out of time as we had to allow our travel companions to try some of there own.

Reluctantly, we moved on and drove towards a solitary building in the middle of the flats, this was the salt flat museum (less of a museum than a cafeteria for the guides and a chance for a toilet stop) but also had a recently constructed salt/sandstone monument advertising the Dakar race (Bolivias answer to the Paris/Dakhar) and an interesting collection of world flags fluttering outside, although we struggled to find either the Australian or UK ones.

Setting off again, we reached the centre of the flats to find the Isla Incahuas, which is a spectacular cacti covered rocky island standing proud in the centre of the flats. Due to our busy schedule we were only afforded 30 minutes to explore the island but could have spent much more time climbing the stunning rocks and photographing to cacti filled scenery.

We headed off again, with our guide anxious to reach a secluded spot in time for us to see the sunset over the flats and distant mountains. We stood and watched the twighlight stars start to show before setting off in the direction of San Juan, which was to be our overnight stop. We arrived at our salt brick built accomodation, which was surprisingly warm, at around 7.30pm after a packed first day.
Day 2

After a good nights sleep we set off on our second day at around 9.30am. We drove south towards the Chilean border, gaining altitude throughout, across desert and crossed the railway line connecting Villamont with Uyuni.

After a stop to climb and take pictures at some rock formations, we arrived at the first of 3 lakes we would visit that day. This contained many flamingos and gave us the chance to get the photos of them, which we had missed whilst cycling in Patagonia.

A short drive further we stopped at another flamingo filled lake for lunch. Leaving it we stopped to feed a fox our scraps, as food is scarce in the area.

Soon after we stopped at a mirador to view the Salvador Dali desert. So named due to the colours of the sands and unusual shapes of the rock formations depicted in some of his art.

Next stop was at the ‘Arbor de Piedra’ (tree of stone) rock formation, where we spotted a viscacha,  a rabbit-like animal.

Towards the end of the day we reached Lago Colorado. This lake is famous for its red colour due to the copper mineral content. It also had large salt formations which resembled ice, so we persuaded our guide to stop to allow us to walk on them and take some snaps of the lake and more flamingos.

We again reached our overnight stay in the dark. Unfortunately it wasn’t as cosy as the previous night and with temperatures dropping to approximately 10 below zero and no heating we were happy to have several blankets.

Day 3

We set the alarm for 4.10am as we were told to be ready to leave at 5.30 to catch sunrise. Unfortunately the staff didn’t rise so early and we sat at the breakfast table in candlelight and wrapped in blankets for a half hour before they showed! Once we set off we drove for 45 minutes as the sun rose and had warmed slightly as we reached the geysers at dawn. We were told that they are most active early in the day and were not disappointed, although a little surprised at the lack of any safety control as you could effectively walk to the very edge of their very fragile slopes.

We headed off from the geysers, reaching to highest point 4937m of our trip so far. Soon afterward we arrived at some hot springs and braved the cold air to bathe in bath like temperatures for 20 minutes before setting off again.

Next stop was the Chilean border, where we said goodbye to our French and German friends and then a relatively uneventful 4 hour drive back to Uyuni, save for a lunch break where we spotted an Emu like bird and fields of quinoa which we had never previously seen grown.

We arrived back in Uyuni late afternoon pretty tired and very happy with our salt flats experience.

Footnote – Arriving back to wifi in Uyuni we learned that our cycle buddies Marie and Miguel had arrived there that same day. We were in awe of them as they had ridden through the desert and flats to get there. The following day we caught up with them and shared stories before taking in a starlight visit to the salt lakes where we took more crazy photos. Again we were sorry to have to go our separate ways.